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Superheroes, Super-Profits, and a Super-Swindle

Do Artists Always Win When Comic Books Become Movies?
by khepler Jul 21, 2015
Contributors: Bryan Cwik

Do Artists Always Win When Comic Books Become Movies?


Easily the most striking thing about movies these days is how many comic book adaptation and superhero movies there are.  Say whatever you will about comic book movies, they are immensely profitable.  Both this year and last year the highest grossing movie was a comic book adaptation (Iron Man 3 in 2013 and The Avengers in 2012).  Both of these movies are in the top 5 all time highest grossing films; altogether 3 of the top 10 and 4 of the top 20 highest grossing movies of all time are comic book adaptations; in an era in which the movie business is financially rocky and movies are being eclipsed by TV shows like Breaking Bad in terms of cultural relevance, blockbuster adaptations of comic books are still huge box office draws.  Behind the scenes of the boom in comic book movies lies the complicated process of licensing copyrighted material, a process that very often requires legal maneuverings that would give even Saul Goodman a headache.  It also often re-plays a drama that is, unfortunately, all too common in the world of intellectual property: the one’s who create the content aren’t always the one’s who benefit.

At the end of my last post I mentioned an important objection to intellectual property that has to do with the tension between the interests of media companies and artists, musicians, and other creative types.  Many theorists (such as Robert Merges, a law professor at Berkeley, and yours truly, the humble author of these blog posts) believe that a powerful reason in favor of intellectual property is that it gives creative laborers a bargaining chip in dealing with powerful companies.  But a problem with this line of argument is that, very often, the reality of the situation is exactly opposite; intellectual property laws give companies a way to exploit creators of content, without compensation for the work.

One example of this is licensing deals between comic book publishers and movie studios.  These deals don’t always benefit the comic book artists and writers who created the stories and characters; in fact, sometimes they do not get anything out of them at all.  The most vivid example of this is the somewhat tragic story of Jack Kirby, one of the greatest comic book artists of all time and creator of some of the most memorable comic book characters in history.  Kirby worked for Marvel Comics during the “silver age” of comics in the 60’s and 70’s.  Among his creations are the Avengers, a dream team of superheroes who are billed as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”, which he co-created along with Marvel founder Stan Lee.

In 2008 Marvel comics cut a deal with Paramount studios to turn the Avengers into a movie; the resulting film was the biggest of 2012 and the 3rd highest grossing movie of all time.  Jack Kirby, however, had previously lost control of the rights to many of his silver age creations (including the Avengers) and his estate saw little benefit from the licensing deal for the movie.  Numerous lawsuits by Kirby’s estate attempting to gain control have failed; Kirby, in fact, was almost not acknowledged for his role in creating the Avengers in the credits to the 2012 movie.

If IP is justifiable in part because it gives people like comic book artists leverage in dealing with media companies, then stories like Jack Kirby’s – and the complex reality of these sorts of licensing deals in general – are a serious objection.  At the very least, they show that (in this domain) copyright is not functioning as it should, and copyright institutions (including the laws regarding licensing) need to be reformed.  So the next time you trek off to the Imax to settle in with a 64 oz Coke and a pound of fake buttered popcorn for 3 hours of stunning special effects, horrible acting, and a script that could have been written by a 7th grader, think about how much of the money you spent on the movie went to those who actually created the characters and story.  The answer may make you even more angry about the 15$ you blew on the ticket.

(NB: thanks to Christine Breton, for suggesting the topic for this post).

‘Owning Ideas’ is an occasional series about intellectual property and its effect on media, health care, and culture